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Speaking from the Void: A Conversation with Filmmaker Amelia Umuhire

Image courtesy of Black Radical Imagination

The following is an abridged but unedited online chat between Black Radical Imagination 2018 cocurators Jheanelle Brown and Darol Olu Kae and Mugabo filmmaker Amelia Umuhire, who is included in the 2018 program Fugitive Trajectories.

Black Radical Imagination is an international touring program of experimental short films emphasizing new stories from within the African diaspora. This year’s screening, programmed by Jheanelle Brown and Darol Olu Kae, explores death and grief, language and memory, and family and notions of home as ways to carve out new inroads to self-actualization and freedom. The films collectively pose a variety of questions: What does it mean to exist in relation to violence? How does the past live through the present in both beautiful and terrible ways? And how can we begin to imagine black life beyond the structuring modalities of resistance and survival?

Credit Text

Black Radical Imagination is originally cofounded by Erin Christovale and Amir George.

Opening Conversation Text

Darol Kae: Hi everyone!

Jheanelle Brown: Hey hey!

Amelia Umuhire: hey

JB: Hey Amelia! Sorry we both somehow slept through our alarms after getting the time difference wrong, apologies! Okay one second!

AU: No worries. I didn't know where you guys are right now otherwise we could've set a more humane time

JB: And with that...the first question...Mugabo opens with a quote by Babiche Papaya, "We are not fucked up. We just got screwed a while ago." It really resonates with me because you are addressing trauma outwardly and inwardly, cause and effect. Can you talk about what that quote means to you in general but also how it informs the film?

AU: Babiche Papaya told me this quote as a joke and it resonated with me because it sums up perfectly what we've been through and what that did to us. It's also a beautiful way of acquitting the traumatized from the guilt of being fucked up. You're not fucked up, you just got screwed. It's funny and dark and true.

The quote sets the tone for the film, because it shows in what sphere the film takes place. It’s clear to the viewer that this is a film from a young perspective and that it’s unusual in how it deals with trauma.

Babiche is my sister and was also a producer on this film

JB: Ah, okay that's interesting. Can you say a bit more about the specific markers of the young perspective you explore in the film?

Amelia Umuhire, still from Mugabo, 2016. HD video, 6 minutes, 32 seconds. Image courtesy of the artist

Conversation Text

AU: I was born in 1991, the genocide against the Tutsi took place in 1994. I'm part of a generation of people who are now in their mid to late 20s who were very young when a majority of our family was killed. So since we were little, we've always been told that we don't remember anything. Almost as if that meant that we were not affected although we are the ones who were born into the void that followed. So in a way that generation doesn't have the same tools to deal with the past as others who were older have.

So we have to find other ways to talk or express ourselves.

JB: Oh wow, okay, that generational distance is so interesting. I feel like I'm understanding better some of the metaphor you use in Mugabo. in a way it's almost expressionistic at times.

AU: And for me it's a more abstract way. I can't tell you based on my memories what happened and what that makes me feel. But I can find another abstract way to express it and Mugabo is an attempt to find another language.

JB: To that end, the exchange about the geckos—it's always something I look forward to in each screening, wondering how people will react, how much laughter there will be. It's an interesting metaphor for survival. Can you talk some about that?

AU: The gecko story is a story Pacifique Ishimwe who plays Mugabo came up with one night while we were hanging around and talking and then we decided to put that into the script. It's a way of describing how we look at each other. In awe of the survival instinct of the other and their resilience and sometimes it makes you forget that you, too are doing the same.

It’s a story that’s meant to encourage and put things into perspective. We’re all geckos wondering how the others manage to stay on their feet while managing to stay on ours, too.

But for people who don’t get it, it’s put in a context of smoking weed and talking. so some people just see the scene and think it’s just two stoners speaking

I like to have several possible layers of interpretation in my films. In Polyglot and Mugabo there are a lot of hints and metaphors that only people understand who share the same history.

JB: That's an interesting point, I get the feeling people who don't outright get the metaphor do see two stoners talking but they also at least glean there's some bigger meaning that they should be trying to understand... or maybe that's me being optimistic.

AU: But there's another universal layer, meant for those who know trauma, but not the specific one I'm talking about

Yes, I think and hope so too. But I think if you don’t get the point, then the scene is almost like a relief from the traumatic scenes before

DK: Just to backtrack for a second, I'm fascinated by your description of Mugabo as a film that's trying to find a language in order to speak back from within “the void.” Before you made Mugabo, were you already engaging unconventional storytelling techniques in cinema? Have you tried to capture these feelings using more traditional cinematic structures and devices? And if so, what made “the abstract,” as a specific approach to filmmaking, useful or productive for you when considering the themes that are explored in Mugabo?

AU:Mugabo was the first film I ever directed, but it took me some time to edit it. A lot of things in my life happened in between. Polyglot happened and then in early 2016 I went back to the footage and edited the version you now see. In between I watched many films

Mainly Chris Marker’s La Jetée which influenced the whole photo sequence.

The first script for Mugabo was a much more linear, less abstract version.

Then most of the abstract part happened in the edit. I found that I couldn't tell the story in another way. I grew up with films like Hotel Rwanda, Schindler’s List and all these other traditional approaches and somehow I thought these films never captured the feeling of living at the edge of extermination the way I felt it.

Mainly because they’re not aimed at the survivors but more as a moral warning or entertainment for others.

I wanted to create something that is for those who’ve lived it and not those who are trying to get a glimpse of it.

Ending Conversation Text

DK: This is a powerful and necessary distinction to make. Thank you for sharing that with us.

JB: Agreed!

DK: You pull from what seems to be your family archive. There are historical documents that are personal (pictures) but also historical documents that are from the state. Considering the history that you're reckoning with, I've always wondered how you dealt with any latent trauma, or your family, if they've watched the film?

AU: The documents I use are my mother's, my father's and my aunt's IDs from before the genocide.

Those IDs contained the information about the ethnicity, in my parents case the Tutsi ethnicity and in my father and my aunts case their death sentence.

But they also contain information about their offspring like in my dad’s ID the three names of his daughters.

I deal with it through creating. My family has seen the film and I always show them everything first. They are the ones who get all the layers so essentially everything I create is mainly for my family.

Then I also use the eagle from my German ID to show the migration that followed the genocide.

And some pictures from my childhood, one in Rwanda, and then one of me in a sea of whiteness a few years later on a school trip in Germany.

JB: Has Mugabo and any other work you've done bridged that generational gap that you spoke about earlier?

AU: Yes, definitely.

The second Polyglot episode was the first attempt at creating something that would speak to both generations. And it worked. People from all ages can see themselves in either Amanda or Mama Omar.

We’ve been migrating for a while. My mother and my father both left Rwanda in their twenties and studied abroad, so this feeling of not being at home and also not knowing if home will ever feel the same once you leave is one that a lot of people can relate to.

With Mugabo, I think it's more about the silence between the generation. The music in combination with the seemingly superficial small talk in the cab, I found that a lot of people from the older generation related to that the most. The weight of the silence.

DK: The silence is intense, especially in the first half of the film.

Can you say a little more about how you deploy silence and isolate text in Mugabo?

AU: There are so many horrible things that happened that can't be said and even when spoken out loud you realize lose their meaning. The way people's lives were taken in the genocide is something for which words are not enough. So my big challenge is always how do you express this without devaluing the lives that were taken and also risking re-traumatization? And that's a question everyone has to deal with. A lot of people chose silence. And I understand that.

So I was looking for a way to show what it feels like to sit on mountains and mountains of trauma but not speak about it. And silent film and the evasive nature of the cab conversation in combination with Isang Yun’s music helped translate that.

DK: Risking re-traumatization is a huge burden to carry and confront. Were there moments of doubt and uncertainty that you had to push yourself through in the creative process?

AU: Yes, always. I'm very aware that my work is a lot for some people to take in and that they find it irritating sometimes to feel what it makes them feel. But I know that most people my age who share the same history really liked Mugabo and understood what I was getting at. My way of dealing with all this violent history and the void it left us with is to work through it through film and storytelling.

I directed a podcast about my father’s life this year which almost knocked me out. It was the first time I got to the edge of my psychological ability of dealing with it. But it was worth it.

It’s important to do this work, vital even. For me but also for others. We could’ve been forgotten, we could’ve been extinct. That was the intention, so how do you scream back at that?

JB: Yes, definitely.

I’m trying to find an articulate way to respond, but I’m sort of just trying to take your words in.

Thank you for this.

DK: Definitely sitting with the gravity of your statement...

AU: That's the thing with words. They're not enough. But I know you understand. I imagine being black in the US is not very far away from that feeling.

JB: Certainly. And thanks for highlighting that connective tissue, it's one of the of the foundational elements of Black Radical Imagination, the series, as well as this year's program. Diaspora, and the weight of history.

DK: And resilience.

JB: I'm really happy we did this, I feel like there were so many things we wouldn't have been able to ask you, we wouldn't have known.

You’ve been so generous with your answers, vulnerable, really, and it’s immensely appreciated.

AU:Thank you for seeing Mugabo and taking it to all these spaces we would've never had access to.

JB: Our pleasure!

DK: It's an honor to screen your film. Thank you for allowing us to include it in our program!